Skip to main content

Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

See other formats

While Galois at the age of sixteen was already well started
on his career of fundamental discovery, his mathematical
teacher - Vernier - kept fussing over him like a hen that has
hatched an eaglet and does not know how to keep the unruly
creature's feet on the good dirt of the barnyard. Vernier
implored Galois to work systematically. The advice was ignored
and Galois, without preparation, took the competitive examina-
tions for entrance to the iScole Polytechnique. This great
school, the mother of French mathematicians, founded during
the French Revolution (some say by Monge), to give civil and
military engineers the best scientific and mathematical educa-
tion available anywhere in the world, made a double appeal to
the ambitious Galois. At the Polyteehm'que Ms mathematical
talent would be recognized and encouraged to the utmost. And
his craving for liberty and freedom of utterance would be grati-
fied: for were not the virile, audacious young Polytechnieians,
among them the future leaders of the army, always a thorn in
the side of reactionary schemers who would undo the glorious
work of the Revolution and bring back the corrupt priesthood
and the divine right of kings? The fearless Polytechnic!ans, at
least in Galois* boyish eyes, were no race of puling rhetoricians
like the browbeaten nonentities at Louis-le-Grand, but a conse-
crated band of young patriots. Events were presently to prove
him at least partly right in his estimate.
Galois failed in the examinations. He was not alone in be-
lieving his failure the result of a stupid injustice. The comrades
he had teased unmercifully were stunned. They believed that
Galois had mathematical genius of the highest order and they
suspected his examiners of incompetence in their office. Nearly
a quarter of a century later Terquem, editor of the Nouvelles
Annales de ^lathematiqiies, the mathematical journal devoted
to the interests of candidates for the Polytechnique and Nor-
male schools, reminded his readers that the controversy was
not yet dead. Commenting on the failure of Galois and on the
inscrutable decrees of the examiners in another instance. Ter-
quem remarks, WA candidate of superior intelligence is lost with
an examiner of inferior intelligence. Hie ego barbarus sum quid
non intelligor illis [Because they don't understand me, I am a